Uniqlo settles ‘anti-white’ bullying case
Uniqlo has quietly settled an explosive legal claim brought by a former HR manager who accused the Japanese fast-fashion giant of discriminating against her due to her "caucasian heritage".
Melanie Bell, who left the company in March 2018 after working there for just under three years, was seeking at least $1 million in damages, alleging she was bullied, discriminated against and passed over for promotion in favour of men of "Asian descent".
The claim was filed in the Federal Court in Melbourne in February and was set down for a five-day Fair Work trial next month, but the case was withdrawn in August.
"This matter has now been resolved on strictly confidential terms requested by the applicant and agreed to by Uniqlo Australia," a Uniqlo spokeswoman said.
Reached on Tuesday, Ms Bell said only that the "matter has been resolved". Her lawyers, Melbourne-based firm McDonald Murholme, declined to comment.
In the original claim, Ms Bell alleged she was bullied on at least four occasions by Uniqlo chief operating officer Kenji Tsuji and was held back from pay increases, promotions and professional advancement by chief financial officer Wataru Sasaki.
"The applicant believes that she was discriminated against because of her caucasian heritage and she was denied career advancement opportunities because of her gender," the claim said.
"The respondent failed to promote the applicant and other non-Asian and female senior managers in the business while promoting other senior managers who were ex-pats and/or male and/or of Asian descent."
Uniqlo had denied the majority of Ms Bell's accusations, saying in court filings that she was "not promoted due to her performance", and that Mr Sasaki had "actively assisted" her in building relationships with global HQ.
It denied any bullying had occurred, describing the claim as "unnecessary and scandalous". In relation to Mr Tsuji's emails, Uniqlo noted "English is not Mr Tsuji's first language" and that the "comments in the email were direct and polite when read in context".
A large number of current and former Uniqlo employees subsequently came forward to describe a toxic culture of bullying at the retailer's Australian stores, with one claiming that everyone leaves with "some form of PTSD".
"You can't walk in the store, you freak out when you walk in," the former assistant store manager said. A former sales assistant who worked at the MidCity store in the Sydney CBD for three years said it was "like a cesspool of all bad Japanese culture squished into one place".
A former visual merchandiser who worked at a Queensland store for 18 months said it "felt like I'd been in an abusive relationship" and that she was "having panic attacks and coming home crying every afternoon".
A former loss prevention manager said he experienced homophobic bullying and suffered generalised anxiety disorder as a result of his time there. "I'm an openly gay man and I would be mocked for my voice by the senior Japanese management as well as floor staff," he said.
Another employee who worked at the Queen Street Brisbane store claimed managers fat-shamed a Maori employee, saying they should keep her in the alterations room "so no one can see her, she's a bit of an eyesore".
At the time, a Uniqlo spokeswoman said the company was "not aware of any of the specific issues you have detailed but there are clear internal processes for staff to raise issues of concern with us".
"Uniqlo respects diversity and does not tolerate discrimination in any form, including discrimination based on race, gender, religion, nationality, social standing, sexual orientation or age," she said.
Last month, the 70-year-old founder and chief executive of Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing said he wanted a woman to succeed him because they have the right qualities to run the $28 billion company.
Japan has often been criticised for its lack of gender diversity in senior roles with only 4.1 per cent of executive positions at publicly traded companies occupied by women.
But Tadashi Yanai said he wanted to increase the gender ratio at Fast Retailing to an even split, having reached its goal last year of 30 per cent women in management positions. "The job is more suitable for a woman," he said. "They are persevering, detailed oriented and have an aesthetic sense."